Inquiry as an Education Reform Approach

Inquiry is short-hand for “inquiry-based learning.”  It is a common approach we use with teams of educators and other leaders to help them find solutions to the challenges they face, typically the challenges of helping vulnerable students succeed.

Inquiry involves posing questions about current challenges, doing research on how others answer it, trying out new solutions, assessing the results of such trials, and re-assessing, in a continual process where a team is talking and thinking together throughout.  Inquiry can work well as a mode of learning among students and in adult learning.

  • When a new approach or solution is dropped into an organization from outsiders or the central office, it may be regarded with suspicion, or tried briefly and then abandoned if success if not quickly achieved.
  • New approaches tend to succeed more and be retained more over the long term if people “own them,” make them theirs, and develop them within the context of their actual work.
  • Inquiry is a method of continuous learning, which many people want to see in organizations, but for continuous learning to be authentic and sustainable, there has to be some autonomy and control from learners. You can’t mandate continuous learning in a top-down way and expect quality.

These perspectives evolved over time among workers in democratic and participatory education, but have been confirmed powerfully by cognitive psychologists such as Daniel Pink in his book Drive:

…while carrots and sticks worked successfully in the twentieth century, that’s precisely the wrong way to motivate people for today’s challenges. In Drive, he examines the three elements of true motivation—autonomy, mastery, and purpose—and offers smart and surprising techniques for putting these into action.

Inquiry should inform the discussion on teacher performance assessments and quality.  Inquiry can seem frustratingly open-ended to results-oriented people, but inquiry is focused on results.  It is hard to track in a systems management perspective of inputs and outputs because it is centered on organic, human activity, but it is completely compatible with accountability.  Rather than a centralized authority feeding knowledge or professional development in a bureaucratic way to teachers, inquiry means letting teachers solve their own problems and giving them the time (so critical) and space and support (knowledgeable guides, master teachers, coaches) to do it. A constant challenge is to keep collaborative inquiry focused on what matters: student learning.

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